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You can't keep a good sprinter down, and although Alessandro Petacchi took nine stages to win his first Giro bunch sprint, he has now notched up three stage wins after taking out a very wet 15th stage in Livigno. Once again, Petacchi was piloted to the finish by his Fassa Bortolo train, and with fewer rivals to contend with, he could afford to lead out early and win the stage by a bike length from Erik Zabel (T-Mobile) and Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step), the latter taking over the points jersey from Danilo Di Luca, and also the Intergiro jersey from Sven Krauss.
The 15th stage was originally scheduled to start from Livigno and go over the Forcola di Livigno after 10 km, but bad weather at the start and at the top of the climb forced the organisers to move the start 50 km down the road to Villa di Tirano, located at the foot of what would have been a treacherous descent of Forcola di Livigno. In addition, the organisers decreed that the two laps of the finishing circuit in Lissone would be neutralised for the purposes of the general classification, and all riders who made it to the start of the circuit in the peloton would be given the same time. Given the wet conditions throughout the stage, it was a completely understandable decision that didn't effect the outcome of the race, while making things safer for most of the riders.
The stage started without Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank), leaving Villa di Tirano at 1:30pm for 154 km of wet, undulating racing along the shores of Lake Como. Rasmussen's Belgian teammate Roy Sentjens is a rider who doesn't mind the rain, having won a cold, wet edition of Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne in 2003. After 12 km of racing, Sentjens attacked the bunch and rode off on his own, with no-one willing to join him in his potentially long effort.
As expected, Fassa Bortolo was keeping a close eye on him, with the ever present Volodimir Gustov and Massimo Codol manning the front of the peloton. Sentjens gained 2'50 after 70 km, averaging 41 km/h, but then Fassa upped the tempo a notch and brought him back to a very manageable one minute gap at the Intergiro in Lecco at 50 km to go. In the battle for Intergiro bonuses, it was again Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step) taking second place and finally overhauling Sven Krauss in the blue jersey competition. Third was Bettini's teammate and lead out man Stefano Zanini, who is also well placed in the Intergiro.
5 km after the Intergiro, Selle Italia's Rafaele Illiano went on the attack in pursuit of Sentjens. The Italian made contact with the Belgian very quickly, and the pair increased their gap to a minute before Sentjens ran out of gas and came back to the peloton after 122 km. Illiano continued alone as Fassa, Lampre and Discovery rode on the front, while a brief counter attack by Matt White (Cofidis) was neutralised. Illiano was caught with 14 km to go and Discovery led the peloton onto the two 5.8 km finishing circuits in Lissone, with maglia rosa Paolo Savoldelli kept safe.
Matt Wilson (Francaise des Jeux) made a strong move with just over a lap to go, but was reeled in after he punctured. His teammate Lilian Jégou also tried, but was ineffective. Fassa took over on the last lap with Petacchi nestled behind six of his teammates. then the dangerous battle for his wheel began, with Paolo Bettini and Erik Zabel very keen for it.
Given the conditions, Fassa had a smooth enough run into the finish to give Petacchi three men to lead him out in the final kilometre, with Zanini also up there for Bettini, but when Marco Velo hit out at 300m to go, a nervous Petacchi didn't wait long before hitting the wind himself on the right hand side and accelerating away from Bettini and Zabel to win by a bike length over the German, looking a lot more comfortable than he did at the start of the Giro.
Maglia rosa Paolo Savoldelli finished 28th and more importantly, stayed upright, as did all the other main GC contenders who will go into tomorrow's rest day with their positions intact and their thoughts on the final five stages to Milan.
There were several crashes today in the wet, but none with any serious consequences. Giovanni Lombardi (CSC) came down at km 93, then Liquigas teammates Cioni and Wegelius at km 120, but all were able to rejoin the peloton. After the finish, Isaac Galvez (Illes Balears) and Aurelien Clerc (Phonak) collided, and will no doubt be a little sore on the rest day. Punctures were more numerous, with Mazzanti (Panaria), Renier (Bouygues), Codol (Fassa), and Wilson (FDJ) all succumbing to flat tyres.
This post rest day stage is perfect for attacking riders who still have some snap left in their legs. After 150km across the flat roads of the Po River valley, Stage 16 climbs the Bric Berton ascent once used in Milano-San Remo, then heads down to the Ligurian riviera and the finish in Varazze.